August 9, 2019

Kim Fellman: Managing the Design Experience team at Pinterest

Kim Fellman

Kim Fellman

Design Experience Lead, Pinterest

Kim Fellman is a Design Experience Lead at Pinterest. Previous to that, she worked at Buzzfeed and Warner Music Group as a Project Manager. She currently lives in Berkeley, California. 

Eli Woolery: Kim Fellman, Design Experience Lead at Pinterest, welcome to Conversations on DesignBetter.Co.

Kim Fellman: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

Eli: Could you tell us a little bit about your role and a little bit about what this new Design Experience team is at Pinterest?

Kim: For sure. I’m a Design Experience Lead here at Pinterest and I manage the Design Experience team.We’re focused on helping our world class team of design professionals do their best work and build off of each other. We consider what the end-to-end experience of being on this team is, from how you’re onboarded, planning for your career, staying inspired, and learning new things

Eli: How do you integrate the Design Experience team with the larger design ops team?

Kim: We are part of the design ops org, with program managers working on product-focused programs or the design experience.

We integrate really closely with all of our program managers. I think those who have worked with producers or program managers know that they’re the GPS of every project. They are closest to the work, they know where misalignments are happening, where people might need to feel more inspired or grow.

For a team like mine that focuses on culture and morale and development, working really closely with our design ops team  is invaluable because we know what teams need and value often before they do because of that partnership.

Eli: What are some of the early wins that you’re seeing from the creation of this team?

Kim: When we got started we focused on two things: inspiring cultural programs and then the critical programs for the way that we work. One early win is onboarding — thinking about how we onboard new people to the product design team, and also how we onboard new folks who are cross-functional partners to work with design.

We had a lot of different onboarding documents over time that were kind of bespoke for each team. Design wasn’t part of company onboarding so over the past few months, we have worked to create an entire suite of documentation that’s standardized for our team, customizable.

Our program manager Mia Ketterling runs that program and is doing an awesome job getting people on the right foot, and then we also just reintroduced product design into company wide onboarding to help new hires understand what Design does and how to work with us.

For perspective, we’re growing at a rapid pace and have dozens of engineers and product managers joining the company every other week. The opportunity for us to start building a partnership from day one is gonna help us build a stronger product for pinners, something that we haven’t been able to do before.

I would say another win is just a lot of really great cultural programs. When we started this team, Mia and I went out and did a huge listening tour, trying to get a lot of qualitative data about what people wanted.

They said, “We want to feel inspired. We want to hear interesting people come in and talk. And we want to learn how other teams function and stay creative.”

We kicked off the speaker series where we’ve brought in a lot of really interesting people to give inspirational lunchtime talks. We’ve had Kelly Anderson, Jess Burrows, Scott Dadich, Josh Brewer, Ryan Germick, Max Temkin, Ellen Lupton.

Last year, we had a really amazing all female team of designers from Anxy Mag come in and talk to us about how they create their magazines. Last summer we also held our first Design Camp.

We partnered with Design Ops and Design Leadership to initiate this three day design sprint with product and brand design. The goal of that was to help teams step back from their individual focus areas and think holistically about the evolution of the product.

Sometimes you might feel like, “I don’t get to think big picture.” This was that opportunity to give everybody the chance to think about what the future of Pinterest is and work with folks that you might not have worked with before.

We also just launched our blog, the Pinterest Studio.

Those are a couple things that we’re working on among many to come.

Eli: What are some of the things that you’re orienting non-designers to do during their onboarding process?

Kim: Yeah. I think number one is helping them to understand how we work. The design process isn’t just beneficial for designers.

I think it’s a unique way of problem solving that has proven useful for many different folks and different industries. We share a lot about that. We share also a lot about our experimentation philosophy on design.

Then another thing that we’re testing out is helping folks understand our design system. Not just how to use it, but why we even have it, and we’re developing a road show in partnership with our standards teams that they go out and give to interns and new hires.

Eli: What kind of education resources are designers hungry for these days?

Kim: That was a big part of our listening tour was understanding what it was that people wanted to learn but also where people needed to grow, because we’re wanting to enrich design culture by talking about really difficult things that people want to be better at.

For us, it was thinking about how we give designers the tools to go out into the company and make a better product and, in turn, make the world of design much better.

We’re really lucky that we have a team full of experts so we can do a lot of co-learning by leveraging their knowledge. There’s a lot about feedback and critique, how to shift from tactical to strategic contribution, prototyping,  even how to understand what to do when you receive feedback that might not feel true.

That’s a really tough thing to broach and help our people with that. A lot around how to design a really great experiment or how to design while being data informed is another one that comes up a lot.

How to build really strong cross functional relationships. We’ve all been there when you’re working in a cross functional relationship and it’s not working. Decisions don’t get made, product doesn’t get built, and the company doesn’t do well.

So, how do you arm yourself to go out and work with a lot of different personalities all at the same time? That is no easy task.

Then there’s little things like storytelling. How do I present my work better? How do I create a compelling narrative to sell an idea or to make a product come to life for somebody that might not understand it? How do I set the right context for my work in critique? 

We built on this work to create a skills rubric for each discipline on the team. It’s comprised of the skills that someone needs to be successful in their role inside and outside of the company, with descriptions. Every six months, team members can do a short exercise to reflect on where their current state is in each skill: learning, fluent or masterful. They then think about what skills they want to invest in growing over the next 6 months. Their manager helps them align these growth areas with their career plan.

Eli: You mentioned this general onboarding where design is sort of exposed to folks that may not have had that much exposure to it and then also evangelizing design systems. Are there any other ways that your team evangelizes design amongst the broader company?

Kim: Yeah, we’ve got several initiatives going. We have a roadshow to cross-functional partner teams to share our design system and how to use it and give feedback. We’ve got a weekly design email with the latest and greatest from the team that’s sent by our Head of Design.

We also invite cross-functional partners to initiatives like Design Camp, in addition to our workshops and critiques, so we can collaborate together from the start. And we have the Yarnballs Speaker Series where bring in creative folks from different industries to spread inspiration. It’s open to everyone at the company!

Eli: So if another company read this interview and was interested in setting up a similar team, what would you advise them to do first?

Kim: Talk to people. We have a number of metrics that we use to inform what it is that we’re going to approach work wise. But the first thing that we did was talk to folks.

Understanding what your team needs and values at the current state but also what are they aspiring to be is going to be a good way for you to figure out what it is that you need to work on and how to prioritize it.

Also talking to leadership and understanding what is your team’s philosophy. Do you have a mission? Do you have values? What are you about? What are you wanting to do? Who do you do it or?

Having those things established is also gonna help you navigate decision making. If you don’t have that stake in the ground to use as your north star, it’s gonna be really tough to do any kind of work as a team.

Eli: Let’s talk about any books or blogs or podcasts. Are there any resources that are helping you now or that have helped you in the past?

Kim: A couple books that I found over time in my career have been really helpful for me. The first one is Radical Candor by Kim Scott.

I think in design, critique is very important and figuring out how to work with a lot of different personalities is really important. The cornerstone to that is being able to be really authentic and give feedback. 

Kim Scott’s book is great for anybody who’s wanting to brush up on that skill, learn how to be more authentic everyday, be really authentic during critique, and also how to absorb feedback.

Another book that I recently discovered earlier this year is Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. I actually went through the Designing Your Life program, and now I’m a facilitator.

It’s so fantastic and I think unique for design folks who are familiar with the design process to be able to apply it to long-term goal planning and kind of doing a lot of qualitative research on yourself.

We’re reading Principles by Ray Dalio as a leadership team at Pinterest. It’s a really fantastic book.

Ray Dalio was this hedge fund guy and you would just think, “What does a hedge fund guy going to do for me as a designer?” But the way that he works and the way that he helps you define what it is that you’re trying to accomplish is super beneficial. Especially for new leaders or if you’re forming a team like Design Experience, it can be really great to help ground you.

Also, Yes Please by Amy Poehler. I just read it, and reread it for the second time and I really love her. I think she’s super. She just puts it all out there and it’s really great if you’re trying to be bold, make bold decisions. She’s really empowering.

There’s also a great podcast that Lin Mindler who’s one of our design directors here turned me on to which is WorkLife by Adam Grant.

There’s really fantastic one that everybody who sits and critiques should listen to called “How to Love Criticism” and it’s about The Daily Show and the writers’ room.

Eli: Well Kim, thanks so much for being on Conversations. It’s been really wonderful to have you.

Kim: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you.


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